Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blues for the Clarets in the Carling Cup

It was an inspiring and moving experience to be present at both of the Carling Cup semi-final matches between Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur and whilst as a Spurs supporter I was of course pleased that Tottenham scraped through, triumph is the last of the emotions I feel. This was football at its best and, in many ways, football as it used to be. Whilst the prima donnas of the top clubs in the Premiership fill the tabloid columns and the shenanigans surrounding there ownership creates headlines on the financial as well as the sports pages Burnley v Spurs was all and only about football. It was as far removed from the grotesquery of Manchester City’s owners trying to buy Kaka and success as it is possible to get.

The core attraction of football, the quality that gave rise to the perhaps overused descriptor "The Beautiful Game", is its simplicity and the way that this allows spectators instantly to relate to the action. We saw two five goal matches at White Hart Lane and at Turf Moor – ten goals in 210 minutes of pulsating football. The goals, one every twenty minutes or so, were the just rewards for effort and ambition – especially so in Burnley’s case. Football, above all cup football, can be a great leveller and no more so than in this clash in which one team, Spurs, had many players who individually earn more than the total staffing costs of the Burnley squad. I use “earn” with a slight sense of irony because although there was no lack of effort from Tottenham on the two nights few of the players really justified their big transfer fees or their mega earnings. With far lesser resources at his disposal Owen Coyle has created a team that completely outplayed Harry Redknapp’s bunch of stars for much of both games.

At the Lane Burnley were by far the better side in the first half and deserved their one goal interval lead – it should have been more. Then in a twenty minute spell in the second half Spurs played their best football of the season to score four goals and seemingly put the tie out of Burnley’s reach. But from the start at Turf Moor there was no feeling of doom, gloom or resignation on the part of the Burnley faithful – nor, crucially, among the players either. There is a symbiosis here which Alastair Campbell (yes that Alastair Campbell) referred to prophetically in the programme: “Winning 3-0 against a Premiership side of course won’t be easy. But if the players don’t believe it nobody can. And if the players do believe it, then so can we”. Well win 3-0 is exactly what Burnley then did – over 90 minutes. And had this been a European two-leg tie rather than the Carling Cup that would have been it – Burnley would have been on their way to Wembley. But quirkily the rules of this competition meant that they had to play another thirty minutes without conceding a goal – and that was just beyond them and Spurs escaped with the latest of strikes from Pavlyuchenko and Defoe.

If you are a seeker-after of justice then don’t be a sports fan – that’s not always how it works. The Burnley team and their superb supporters certainly deserved to go to Wembley not just for their efforts and their style but also for their skill and bloody-minded determination not to give up – and for their belief. They have two more chances this season in the FA Cup and possibly in the play-offs from the Championship. I won’t be the only Spurs supporter wishing them well. On March 1st whilst I’ll be hoping that the Tottenham All-Stars win the Carling Cup I will have a slight embarrassment that the Spurs are there at all and a memory of two semi-final encounters that transcended sport and restored my faith in human nature, if not in natural justice.

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